The Decline of Australian Sport

Michael Jennings isn’t going to like me pointing this out, but Australian sport appears to be going through a rough patch at the moment.

In 2012 Australia was so confident of whipping Britain in the London Olympics that their sports minister made a wager with ours, which she went on to lose.  But the decline had started earlier, as the following tables show:

Athens 2004

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia4th17161750
Great Britain10th991230

Beijing 2008

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia6th14151746
Great Britain4th19131547

London 2012

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia8th8151235
Great Britain3rd29171965

Rio de Janeiro 2016

 Overall PositionGoldSilverBronzeTotal
Australia10th8111029
Great Britain2nd27231767

As Britain’s success grew, Australia disappeared into the ranks of the also-rans.  My guess would be that Australia pioneered a lot of professional sporting techniques – particularly in swimming where they used to do extremely well – and had world-class coaches who were ahead of their time, plus generous funding for their Olympic sports programmes.  Now that other countries have matched or exceeded the funding and adopted professional training regimes, as well as hire a lot of Australian swimming coaches, the Australians don’t have the edge and their small population isn’t producing enough talent to dominate like they used to.

Australia is also going through a low point in Rugby Union, which I don’t think is a mere blip.  Following a strong showing in the 2015 RWC (where they avoided South Africa and rarely worried the Kiwis in the final), their Super XV franchises did spectacularly badly the following season:

Were it not for the wildcard system that ensures the playoffs are not dominated by the Kiwis, the Brumbies – Australia’s best side – would have finished joint 7th on points and miles adrift of 5 of the 6 New Zealand sides.  The Brumbies got dumped out of the knockout stages in the first round, and that was the Australian effort over for 2016.

But what made it far worse was that halfway through the season England toured Australia for a 3-test series and went back home having whitewashed their hosts.  For Australia to be beaten 3-0 by a Northern Hemisphere touring side was unprecedented, and it was especially perplexing because Australia had comprehensively beaten an England team made up of much the same players on their home ground in the Rugby World Cup the previous year.  Only in the intervening period the English Rugby Union had snaffled the wily Australian coach Eddie Jones who had made few personnel changes but utterly altered the mindset and gameplay to a degree Australia did not appreciate until it was too late.  And it that weren’t bad enough, the next time the Australian national team pulled on their jerseys they received a 42-8 thrashing on their home turf at the hands of an All Black side which seems to only get better with each passing year.

Traditionally Australia can turn to cricket to feel good about themselves sports-wise, but unfortunately they’ve just been beaten 3-0 in a test series in Sri Lanka: up until this tour, Sri Lanka had managed to beat Australia just once in test matches, back in 1999.  What must worry the Australian selectors and fans is not that this record has been broken, but that the players looked utterly clueless against a Sri Lankan side who had been all but written off with the recent retirement of three of their greatest ever players.  Today the news is that Australia’s captain Steven Smith is going home to “rest” with the ODI series sitting at 1-1 with 3 more to play, which is drawing a lot of criticism from fans who have been brought up on stories of Border, Taylor, and Waugh eating barbed wire for breakfast.  There is much discussion in Australian cricket regarding their apparent practice of using fast and bouncy drop-in pitches at home to guarantee success against visiting sides, which is leaving them hopelessly unprepared for swinging conditions in England or the spin of the sub-continent.  By contrast, England’s humiliating exit from the 2015 ICC World Cup resulted in the wholesale firing of the coaching staff and the appointment of the experienced and canny Trevor Bayliss – an Australian – who immediately turned the team’s fortunes around by winning the ODI series against the more fancied New Zealand.

I daresay Australian sport will pull itself out of this hole and start winning things again, but they might find they are going to have to work a lot harder than previously to do so: the rest of the world, particularly England/Great Britain, has caught up by adopting their methods and hiring their coaches.

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20 thoughts on “The Decline of Australian Sport

  1. Professional sport in Oz was odd when we lived there. The commentators on the telly were despicably bad (except for the sainted Benaud): rabble-rousers for an audience that was assumed to be pig ignorant and low IQ (and perhaps drunk?). And yet the Aussie populace that I met seemed pretty well informed, at least about cricket (which was effectively the national sport, unlike the footie codes). The obvious explanation for the discrepancy was that it was a matter of social class, but since Australia was axiomatically held not to have such issues, it was never discussed.

    By contrast, the coaches and players obviously thought long and hard about what they were doing, making the British, and particularly the English, look like dolts.

  2. What happened to Aussie tennis? It supplied the world with top players when I was a schoolboy, and lots of people played tennis when we lived there.

  3. The commentators on the telly were despicably bad (except for the sainted Benaud): rabble-rousers for an audience that was assumed to be pig ignorant and low IQ (and perhaps drunk?).

    That’s not changed, particularly for RU. Phil Kearns, anyone?!

    By contrast, the coaches and players obviously thought long and hard about what they were doing, making the British, and particularly the English, look like dolts.

    I think part of this stems from the English teams taking pride in not training or preparing. The All Blacks used to actually practice together in the 1970s, whereas the visiting teams had met each other for the first time the night before in the bar. I think that’s basically what I’m getting at in this post: a lot of the Australian sporting success was their simply taking it more seriously than everyone else, but now everyone takes it seriously.

  4. What happened to Aussie tennis?

    They had one winner – Welshman* Leighton Hewitt – and decided they hated him. And they had a Serb girl whose Dad used to get lashed up in the crowd and abuse everybody. But since then…not much.

    *His Dad was Welsh, named his son after a Swansea City goalkeeper, or something.

  5. Its a pity that TNA has stopped blogging as he would have had a field day with the current scoreboard, its as if he missed out in his true calling in life.

    Surprised you didn’t include the Sydney Olympics to illustrate the decline but on the other hand you could also take a longer viewpoint and say that relatively speaking Australia recent performance as far as medal tallies is concerned was above average. Back to the drawing board it seems but intellectuals would criticize Australia’s culture as already being far too sports obsessed.

  6. @dearieme- “eurocancer’ indeed.

    I am thoroughly enjoying the euro melt down spectacle unfold more so than the Olympic Games. Everything from poms getting concerned that Nandos will pull out, Sturgeon being blindsided by her European masters and the poor old British farmers and steelmakers wiping the beads of sweat from their once tightly protected foreheads.

    But the best of all is watching the wagons circle the Franco German bloc now the two top Euro nations since the UK vote to leave where the old deep seated divisions are once again apparent. Berlin with an economic imperative is far more conciliatory to Brexit terms with the UK whereas Paris with an inefficient economy and a very real and imminent political nationalist threat still snubbing their nose and trying to act tough even though everybody knows they are cowards that will surrender and back down when confronted. Yes the divisions are growing by the day and the dominoes are wobbling alright. The Germans just want to continue flogging their products to the UK and there is no nationalistic political threat to the incumbents, whereas the French protectionists are shitting themselves about Brexit whipping up a Le Pen revival at the elections and as for their all powerful voting bloc farmers well no one in the euro zone likes them anyway. Eurocarts being fed to the lions is the real international sport at the moment.

  7. Regarding France and the EU: from what I can tell, the French have totally screwed their own economy by adopting stupid economic policies (e.g. having the state involved in pretty much everything) and ludicrous labour laws. Those on the Left think the way to address this is to double-down on the stupidity and the EU is preventing them from doing that; those on the Right think the solution is to get the EU to ride to the rescue of France by becoming even more of a centralised superstate overseeing even more of the continent’s affairs directed – of course – by the French. I’d be tempted to say France deserves better than this, but they seem to be content with this state of affairs.

  8. Oh, you are actually repeating things I have said elsewhere, largely. To cut and paste something I said about the Olympics:

    In 1976, Australia won no gold medals at the Montreal Olympics. The perception in Australia was that this was a national catastrophe, that the whole world was laughing at us, etc etc etc. (Pretty much the small country syndrome that you have described elsewhere). The government decided that something must be done about this, and a state funded training system for elite athletes was set up. At subsequent Olympics, Australia’s performance improved. Australia made a bid for and won the right to host the games in 2000, and this led to the elite athletes program gaining even more money. Australia achieved what was seen as a good performance in 1996 in Atlanta (9 golds) and a very good one at home in Sydney in 2000 (16 golds).

    Australia then did even better (17 golds) in Athens in 2004. Since then it has been downhill, though. 14 Golds in Beijing, and 8 each in London and Rio, despite the fact that large amounts of government money is still being spent on development of elite athletes. My explanation for this is that the government bodies that are in charge of developing elite athletes have become fat, lazy, entitled and bureaucratic, the way government bodies do.

    Now if delay all that about 15 years, you find Britain has followed exactly the same pattern. There a games where Britain did very badly (1 gold medal in 1996 in Atlanta). There was the establishment of a state (lottery) funded athlete development program. There was the hosting of a games. There was the good performance in the games before the one Britain hosted (Beijing), the very good performance at the games they hosted, and then the even better one at the games that followed that one. Whether this will be followed by the pattern of decline, I do not know.

  9. I think what I just posted applies to Olympic sports other than swimming. Swimming in Australia is a special case. Whereas the Australian Institute of Sport was designed to look at where there were relatively easy medals to be gained and target that sport, swimming was never perceived in that way. Australia had won many medals in swimming since the Olympics began, swimming formed a big part of our culture, champion swimmers are amongst the biggest sporting celebrities in Australia, and winning at swimming was expected, whatever the cost and however hard it was.

    Prior to 1976, Australia managed to win at swimming a lot I think simply because in Australia there was a huge level of participation and Australians were very competitive with each other. (I think this pretty much explained Australian success at tennis up to about that moment, too) At that point, training methods became more sophisticated and scientific in other places – notably the Soviet bloc – and that didn’t work any more. Australia then jumped into the same approach, which has actually worked pretty well ever since. Australia has continued to produce many champion, world record holding, etc etc swimmers. The trouble is that in the last three Olympics or so, they have underperformed in the Olympics compared to what would be expected of them give personal bests, world rankings, world records held etc.

    The problem there – the Australian swimming establishment – swimmers, coaches, etc , are extraordinarily arrogant and entitled. The sports history of succeed has led them to believe their own publicity, and they think they pretty much only have to turn up to win. They turn up, they don’t win, and yet they somehow continue to believe their own publicity and fail to focus and prepare properly for their most important competitions. One of the interesting stories of the Olympics from an Australian point of view was that there was extremely bad blood between the swimming team and the rest of the Australian team. The swimmers apparently had an attitude – they were somehow a higher form of life than everyone else. (They certainly have vastly more in the way of endorsements and hence income than most of the rest of the team). This did not go down well.

    What does this remind me of? Well, the Australian cricket team, actually. Australian test cricketers sometimes give off the idea that they believe that they are genuinely a higher form of life than all other human beings. Again, this hasn’t helped in recent years when they have been underprepared and have performed badly. However, for the Australian cricket establishment to acknowledge there is something wrong, they would all have to sack themselves. So they are reluctant to do that.

    I think the situation with Australian rugby union is quite different though. The remarkable thing about Australian rugby teams is (and always has been) that they are ever able to win at all, rather than that they often lose heavily. The key fact about Australian rugby union – that the game is played in Australia by a negligible number of people and followed by an only slightly greater number – is something that foreigners seldom seem to appreciate. (That negligible number consists of rich people though – it is all about social class). I might come back and comment on that at more length tomorrow, if I have time.

  10. My explanation for this is that the government bodies that are in charge of developing elite athletes have become fat, lazy, entitled and bureaucratic, the way government bodies do.

    That sounds highly plausible.

    Whether this will be followed by the pattern of decline, I do not know.

    Indeed. One point repeatedly missed by the likes of the BBC regarding Britain’s cycling success is the role of Team Sky. If and when they stop their involvement in the sport, any successor team is probably going to be reluctant to release their riders for the Olympics.

    The problem there – the Australian swimming establishment – swimmers, coaches, etc , are extraordinarily arrogant and entitled. The sports history of succeed has led them to believe their own publicity, and they think they pretty much only have to turn up to win.

    That I can believe too. And it’s interesting that swimming was always a special case in Australia, I didn’t know that.

    The key fact about Australian rugby union – that the game is played in Australia by a negligible number of people and followed by an only slightly greater number – is something that foreigners seldom seem to appreciate. (That negligible number consists of rich people though – it is all about social class).

    I’m not sure I agree with that last sentence. Sure, in 1991 the Australian team was made up of the upper echelons of the social classes, but now? I’d hardly say Will Genia, Quade Cooper, Will Skelton, Sekope Kepu, Digby Ioane, and Israel Folau represent Australia’s rich upper classes. What’s changed is Australian rugby has imported a lot from the Pacific Islands and to a lesser extent from RL. And I think Australia’s success in RU is in some way down to their being exceptionally good at RL: “rugby” is being played to a very high level in Australia, and this will be picked up at schoolboy level in terms of skills, training methods, physical development, competition, infrastructure, etc. across both codes. I’m not exactly sure what the mechanism is, but I am confident if Australia didn’t play RL so well they would be crap at RU. Similarly, the Kiwis play RL quite well and I think this is partly because they are so good at RU.

  11. Yes, I had (and have) more to say on Rugby Union in Australia (and particularly how the transition to professionalism played out in Australia), and I will still come back and expound at more length later. (I am supposed to be working, so I will try not to do it now). Australian success at Rugby Union has always had a great deal to do with success at Rugby League. In the amateur days, people would play RL as juniors, then possibly amateur RL as young adults, and might then switch to RU later, and then back to professional RL after that. (There was a clear distinction between amateur and professional Rugby League in order to make this possible). These days they still typically play RL as juniors, but the order in which the other codes are played later can be variable. There has always been a lot of prestige in the rugby states in Australia in being a “dual international” – that is to have played for Australia at both rugby codes, and the list of people who did this goes back a century.

    My basic point was that the playing depth of Australian RU is shallow. Good players come along (and there is enough money to encourage some RL players and Pacific Islanders to play RU as long as they can do it at the top rank), and at times Australia can be competitive with New Zealand, South Africa, etc. However, the lack of depth means that performance is going to be highly variable, whereas in New Zealand the fifth best team is going to be barely worse than the best team and the performance of the national team is going to be more consistent.

    And to the “rich people” comment, that was a simplification. There was (and is) actually a lot of social mobility in there as well. Someone from the bush might come to Sydney University to study medicine or law or such, and might then join the university rugby club, which would be a very helpful thing in terms of connections and networking as well as rugby. (Traditionally in Sydney, the word “rugby” on its own referred to Rugby Union, by the way. Rugby League was “football”). Playing the game can be socially useful for people who were not brought up with it, so probably the playing ranks contain a broader social mix than the following ranks, which are, as I said, pretty narrow. I grew up in a working class part of one of the rugby states, but I never saw a game of RU played, either live or on television, until I was about 16. There is much more media coverage now, the younger equivalent of me now is still unlikely to ever see the game being played.

    Still, Rugby Union is played by the posher parts of the professional classes in Sydney and Brisbane, and if you hang with people like that it is easy to think that the following of the game in Australia is greater than it actually is. You will also find expats following it to a much greater extent than actually resident Australians, and often these same people will be rather more interested in following other codes when they are home in Australia. Australian expats often end up hanging out with New Zealanders, South Africans, and Brits when in foreign places. Australia has a team that is reasonably good, and so you watch the Wallabies play for the camaraderie. You may even get some actual interest in the sport.

    (I’m supposed to be working).

  12. Michael (when you have finished working), I would be interested to read your views on how the Super Rugby competition fits into what you have been saying about RU in Australia? Does a distinction need to be made between the RU played in this competition and international tests? Presumably Super Rugby is an important component in attracting talent to the code? It appears Australian teams do not seem to fare too well in this competition (at least relative to NZ teams). Lastly, is it possible to define which demographic (geographically and socially) in Australia will watch Super Rugby rather than RL? Thanks.

  13. @ Michael Jennings.

    Speaking as a junior rugby coach in Sydney, your suggestion that rugby has a shallow supporter base and an even shallower player base is bang on the money.

    I’m not so sure about the rugby league effect during the glory years though; a glance at the team sheets for their two world cup winning squads doesn’t indicate too many ex-mongos. There’s a disturbing number of the alumni from just a handful of Sydney private schools however, and therein lies the fundamental problem…..

    Rugby union is almost exclusively a private school sport here. The ARU does little to nothing to grow grass roots rugby. Add to that the financial management and sports administrative incompetence and it’s a wonder the Wallabies don’t find themselves playing in the Pacific Rim emerging nations competition rather than the Rugby Championship.

    If either of my sons show a competence for the sport I will have to send them back to Blighty to live with their grandparents to ensure access to decent development programmes.

    Back at my old blog I wrote about the correlation with the Australian economy and their prowess at sport, where the Ashes and RWC were mapped against the AUD exchange rate. It probably wasn’t the right measure in hindsight. GDP isn’t particularly useful either. Maybe Bardon can suggest something (hello old friend)?

    I wonder if there’s a “Dutch Disease” correlation with a booming economy and not performing well on the sports pitch?

    Anyway, I blame Brexit for the England cricket team losing to Bangladesh…….

  14. G’day TNA,

    Yes your sporting correlation was a ripper alright, I guess your blog and the banter on there was like all good things in life something of its time that has now passed. I certainly miss the craic there big time.

    Maybe its more aligned with a basket of currencies, the Sydney auction clearance rates, the banana price differential or the bicycle helmet wearing compliance levels.

  15. Hi Bardon,

    Average household expenditure at cafes on weekends.

    I reckon that’s the key economic feel good indicator. The more frequntly families are having al fresco breakfasts on a weekend, the better the perception of the economy.

    There will be a lag effect on sporting results but, long term, I bet there’s a correlation.

  16. “The more frequently families are having al fresco breakfasts on a weekend, the better the perception of the economy.”

    That’s taking the smashed avo and toast meme a bit far, I hope you arent stroking your hipster beard these days.

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